Monday, 25 May 2015

Headhunted on Skogshorn

After the underwhelming climbing experience on Siluetten two days prior I was keen to try a route that would stay in my memory a little longer. Kruttårnet-Lettvinten looked a good option. It was the longest route on Skogshorn, totalling 470m and 14 pitches, and followed a prominent ridge via a fore-summit at mid-height. It looked well-suited for a solo attempt because of it's amiable grade and stretches of easier ground that could be covered quickly by myself. The harder pitches lay in the upper half, where the Skogshorn rock quality was generally better, and therefore likely suitable for back-roping if necessary. The route could also be escaped from the top of Kruttårnet via a scree gully should I not fancy the harder pitches, and consequently not overly committing.

The South Face of Skogshorn

As with Overaskelsen and Siluetten some of the rock was loose on the initial pitches. Particularly the first pitch. I made best efforts to climb primarily with my feet whilst keeping my hands angled in a manner that facilitated climbing whilst guarding against an unexpected slip. Largely it was a matter of choosing the line of least resistance rather than following an absolute line and after the initial looseness the climbing became easier.

Beneath the start of the route
Better rock after the initial loose pitch

Kruttårnet-Lettvinten lay in the middle of Skogshorn's South face and its open environment provided some fine views in all directions. The deep cut chimneys of Lanciakaminen and Skogshorndiederet still contained remnants of bleached white ice that begged some attention come early winter. To my the left the eastern aspect of the Central Pillar also looked ripe for some exploration during the summer months.

The Central Pillar

The fore-summit of Kruttårnet provided a good opportunity to take some rest and admire the upper half of the route, which followed a steeper wall of clean-looking rock. It looked inviting, with just a few small white patches towards the very top.

The upper half of Kruttårnet-Lettvinten

Further examination from directly beneath the next pitch highlighted some fast dripping water through a corner system higher on the route. Without closer investigation it was difficult to judge how much of a problem this seepage would pose. The next pitch was 4+, followed by a couple of easier pitches, followed by a second 4+, where presumably the wet rock lay. All reversible I anticipated, should the route not be in adequate condition.

Residual snow blanketing the scree slopes beneath the upper wall meant it was impossible to leave the ground with dry soles. I decided the sensible approach would be to start climbing in my approach shoes and then change to my rock shoes at first opportunity once above the snow line. The climbing became harder than anything previous after only a few moves so decided to place a large nut and clip my four metre cordelette to it. The difficulties looked short-lived and so anticipated being able to easily strip the gear from a little higher.

I hear a whooshing sound from above. As though a fighter jet is about to fly over the mountain a second later. I instinctively look up out out of curiosity, only to be immediately struck in the face by something large. Big enough to cause me to sag under its impact. It has left me dazed momentarily but I largely have my cognition, albeit not all my senses as my left eye vision has diminished to a barely usable level. The left side of my face is numb and painful. I'm bleeding but I don't know where from. What has just hit me? Ice? Yes, it must have been a remnant of ice from high on the face.

In a matter of seconds everything about the day has changed and it is obvious that I need to go down. I clip myself to the large nut using a quickdraw and remove the rope from my bag in order to made a short abseil. I'm just about to unclip the quickdraw to start my descent when I realise my belay plate is still on the back of my harness. Evidently I am either in shock, am disorientated, or am suffering from lack of visual feedback. I make the short abseil to the snow-covered scree slope from where I can make my escape down the gully that neighbours Kruttårnet.

By this point left eye vision is now a uniform blur of white light that is unable to distinguish between even land and sky. I am effectively blind in one eye. I take a picture of my face and peer into the LCD screen with my good eye to examine the damage:

The blood at least looks to be focused around my forehead and away from my eye. All things considered, the eye itself looks normal, which is a moderate relief at this stage. I'm also taking quiet comfort that my vision took a couple of minutes to fully degrade rather than being immediate. Seeing white is also feels better than seeing black.

Without delay I start descend the gully. The first 100m are still covered in snow, meaning I need to kick steps. After maybe 50m I stop to make the inevitable call to 113 (ambulance) to discuss my predicament. I'm confident that I can extract myself from the side of the mountain but I know that eye possibly needs urgent attention. I want to give them as much notice as possible. I know they will likely send a helicopter but know there is no chance of it plucking me from my current location as I am closely bounded by cliffs on both sides. As I end the call see that the screen of my mobile phone is covered in blood as my left ear is also bleeding.

The loss of vision in one eye has not only affected my ability to judge distances but also gradients. I make a concerted effort to descend with my good eye facing outwards so that I can better see the forthcoming terrain. My walking poles provide much needed assistance in aiding my judgement.

The phone soon rings but I am unable to answer because my fingers are wet from the snow and unable to swipe the screen. I try to dry them on my clothes but fumble my phone in the process. It skates down the final few meters of snow before coming to rest on the scree. I retrieve it and soon the phone was ringing again. Again I try to swipe the now cracked screen, this time with success. It is an ambulance team positioned close to Ulsåkstugu on the gravel road below. A helicopter is on it's way they tell me.

For the large part the angle of the gully remains kind during my descent. A couple of times it steepens to necessitate down-climbing, which makes route-finding harder and judging distances to foot placements all the more precarious. With extra caution these pass without drama.

By the time I hear rota blades I am towards the base of the gully. Three or four passes are needed before the helicopter can see me. This is despite me describing my relative whereabouts over my mobile and also wearing bright green. I'm a small dot on a vast face. The helicopter settles down on flat ground beneath it to await my arrival.

Once out of the gully I move faster over the easier ground with greater confidence. I bound up to the helicopter without need for the staff to leave its company, climb aboard when instructed, and belt up independently. I am at least glad to have been able to help myself up to this point.

The helicopter makes a brief flight to the ambulance a few hundred metres lower. Maybe the shortest helicopter ride I will ever take. Following a provisional examination it is decided that I should be driven by ambulance to the Gol legevakt for a further exam by a doctor. I spend the journey dripping saline into my eye from an intravenous bag. The doctor at Gol feels that a detailed examination by an ophthalmologist is needed and so I am to be driven by taxi to Ullevål Sykehus in Oslo (my place of work) for an examination the same evening.

On the plus side my vision has started to improve whilst in Gol. I have progressed from being barely being able to see a hand in front of my face to being able to count fingers. I can make out basic features such as doors and lights in the room and eventually my vision is good enough to clean my face and find some food in my bag. Congealed blood is concentrated around the left side of my face at my forehead, ear and side of neck. A coverage extending a foot in diameter indicating the size of the impact. My left eye looks angry. It is bloodshot and the pupil fully enlarged.

It is 8pm by the time I reach Ullevål. Everything is fortunately looking ok after an exam. There is evidence of an initial bleed in the front of the eye but this has long stopped. I have a pupil fixed in dilation but am told this usually settles in weeks to months. Shortly after 10pm I leave in a taxi for home with strict instructions to do nothing to raise the heart rate for the next week in order to avoid possible further bleeding. I'm very much grateful to the staff that helped me through the day and also relieved. Also to my girlfriend Anna for flying back from Stockholm the same evening to look after me.

24 hours after impact

I felt somewhat fortunate to have avoided a more substantial injury to my eye but there again felt unlucky to have been hit unaware in the first place. I think I'll put it in the 'shit happens' box. Most climbers I think see falling debris of worrying size at some point in their climbing lives. Most see it fly past them or are able to react. Maybe a belayer could have alerted me in principle but in practice I'm almost certain that in this case they would have been tucked against the rock beneath my legs and able to see nothing. In hindsight the obvious error was looking up when hearing the whooshing sound but that was largely a instinctive response of curiosity. Hopefully this is my bad luck dealt for a while at any rate.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Skogshorn Solo Part 1: Siluetten (n3+/4)

The first couple of pitches of Siluetten were not feeling optimally in control. Not what I was hoping for given this was a solo effort. The rock wasn't strictly 'loose', it was more 'suspect', which was actually worse because of the greater element of doubt playing on my mind. Many holds needed careful checking to ensure they would not dislodge, which slowed the climbing to a crawl at one point. To add to this, some powerful westerly gusts were blowing across the face and making my slow, fitful progress all the more sketchy. One prolonged gust in particular made me consider whether to continue but as it happened this proved to be the last one of note.

Skogshorn from the road
The route starts up the left side of the triangle in the lower right of the photo and then continued up the rib on the skyline 

After the first couple of pitches the climbing became much easier. Both in terms of technical difficulty and with regards the rock stability. All of which improved my confidence to commit to simple moves with greater efficiency. The route followed an indistinct curving rib along no particular line. After which a long scramble lead up and left to another section of rock that continued to the top. The easy ground linking the two sections was still partly covered in a soft layer of wet snow, which collapsed easily with each foot advancement.

Slow on the easy scrambling ground

The small ridge continuing to the top proved an easy affair and rather short-lived. Here lay the hardest pitch according to the guidebook but with better rock quality the relative difficulties went unnoticed. With such fine weather it was a good day to continue to the summit, although my lightweight approach shoes were far from fit for the job.

Selfie from the top of the route
View from the summit

Siluetten it has to be said is not a great route. 'Route' being used in the loosed sense because the long scramble leftwards at mid-height felt like an overly contrived attempt to link some nondescript sections of rock. The route also lacked any features to force a 'line', apart from the initial short corner.

That said, any route on Skogshorn is still a good mountain day. Being the nearest major mountain venue to Oslo this route was going to get climbed sooner or later. Plus with a less breezy forecast in two days time there was every reason to treat this as a warm-up for something a bit more imposing.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Reven (n6-), Hægefjell

Matias and I were making things somewhat hard for ourselves. Firstly due to sleep deprivation, having stayed up too late at the Ballesteinfestival in Bø i Telemark the previous evening. Albeit sober, as a consequence of missing the Saturday 6pm supermarket curfew for alcohol sales. Secondly the final stretch of road to Hægefjell proved to be shut 5km before the camping area, making the approach a little more sporting. At least an opportunity to wake-up, magnified by a gusty north-easterly wind that was meeting with us. Hopefully we would be in its lee once on the route.

Road closure
The approach
Hægefjell in the distance

It had rained lightly throughout the night, however the Sunday forecast looked excellent and with a casual starting time we hoped to find some dry rock somewhere. Gone with the Weed had been our first choice but the broad streaks of seepage descending the entirety of the route firmly placed it in the 'wet' category. Heavy seepage also affected other nearby routes such as Agent Orange and Via Lara, however Reven looked largely to follow dry rock after some wet initial sections on the first pitch.

The first couple of pitches of Reven offered a steady warm-up with the main resistance being water-based. Gone with the weed's first belay in comparison was semi-submerged in the centre of a shallow stream making our Plan B a justified one.

First pitch
Second pitch

The third pitch was the distinct crux. It followed a straight crack in the slab, starting at 5+, then moving to 6-. Usually a grade that I felt confident with, however the spring had been a slow start for me. I'd repeatedly irritated a mild finger pulley during autumn and made me wary to test it on indoor plastic through winter for risk of upsetting my ice climbing plans. What's more a long trip to Pakistan in July had shifted my attention away from finger strength and movement towards endurance and general fitness. I had mainly been bumbling on 5s of late but on the plus side my tall frame made slabs a more amiable gradient and I had sensed some form on rock returning the previous day whilst climbing near Drammen.

5+ moves quickly confronted me above the belay but soon the difficulties eased back with some easy footwork to help matters. Things as expected became harder in the upper half but the gear was solid, as were some strong passive finger jams. At one point the distorted proximal joint of my ring finger jammed inside the crack. Random heavy impact against the joint during the ice climbing season had left it enlarged and prominent and now needed some effort to free. Through hardest moves the passive jams were so good that it seemed better to run the moves out a little rather than compromise their purchase with gear.

Third pitch

A short section of 5+ at the start of the next pitch moved to beneath an overlap, however bolts softened the difficulties. The moves through the overlap were a simple affair, and above this the difficulties were largely over. Just a short bolted section of 5 on the fifth pitch, complicated by some wet streaks, called for extra focus. Otherwise the climbing was simple but still fun and with perfect weather to boot.

Moving through the overlap on the fourth pitch
Sixth (final) pitch

Some large blocks of snow rested on the easy angled slabs above the routes, marking the source of the seepage down the face. With so much seepage in the proximity we had been fortunate to find a dry route so early in May. It felt good to have the first long route in the bag and a sense that my rock season was now properly under way.

Hægefjell from the valley

Saturday, 28 March 2015

La Tour Ronde North Face (II D, 350m)

Two hours in bed, one hour playing cards.

That was the approximate ratio of events other than mealtimes, which formed our third category of activity for Friday.

We only knew one card game and even then we only half knew the rules, which at least meant we could alter them subtly with each game.

Friday morning's weather was quite frankly abysmal but at least the bunk beds in the Torino hut were comfortable. Very comfortable in fact.

Winds were expected to be high during Friday but optimistically we had hoped it would be less than forecast and allow a modest ascent of some sort. Plan A for the trip had been the Ginat on the North face of Les Droites. Reputedly in great condition but frustratingly without a weather window to make an attempt. Our only fine weather day had been during our first climb on Modica-Noury when we were not sufficiently acclimatised to try much beyond this. Currently the North Face of Aiguille de Toule was under consideration, a fifth of the height of les Droites and described as a 'good route for beginners'. Sadly the forecast was true to form. The volumes of horizontal snow blowing past our dorm window indicated no further investigation necessary. On the plus side the forecast for Saturday was looking better, having looked diabolical a few days ago. Consequently a restful day was in order whilst we waited for the storm to pass.

Our flights were scheduled for the Sunday morning from Geneva, making it was absolutely essential that we catch the last cable car to Courmayeur after any climbing on Saturday. A relatively conservative option was needed and so we elected to return to Tour Ronde to try the North Face. Over eight years after climbing the slightly harder North Couloir to the right. Alarms set for 5am.

Thankfully the wind had settled by the morning and we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise. What's more the aggressive Northerly winds the previous day looked to have scoured the North Face of Tour Ronde, stripping some of the loose snow and and improving conditions a little.

Sunrise over Tour Ronde (left) & the Mont Blanc massif
Rob beneath the North Face

We moved together over the entirety of the route with just one intermediate belay to switch leads. The lower slopes turned out still soft. Or more precisely consisting of a soft top layer of snow with a thin layer of neve underneath, under which was more soft snow. Consequently I needed to kick deep steps in order to feel secure, which proved time consuming but at least it was steady methodical progress. I clung to the right hand edge of the face, placing occasional rock protection. My hands immersed in the snow were becoming cold and after ten minutes of no feeling in my finger tips I stopped to generate some circulation. Rob's toes weren't faring much better.

View down to Rob near the start of the climb

Conditions improved in the ice couloir, where the route bottlenecked and steepened. The relentlessly slabbed angle strained my calves but otherwise felt steady. Some moderately brittle ice but this probably lay with the lack of features. I somehow missed the belay bolts and continued up a thin passage of ice to the left of the start of the upper face. With just two ice screws remaining I made a belay.

Rob continued up the final stretch of ice, exiting onto the upper via a cramped short corner. Then onto the left hand edge of the upper face, which was densely packed with firm neve. Consequently we moved at surprising pace compared to the lower slopes and soon enough were at the top of the face. Twenty minutes later we were both on the summit. Third time of asking for me, having descended by other routes the two previous occasions on the mountain.

Clouds had progressively been developing through the latter morning and within minutes of summiting we were immersed. Then the wind picked up. Without much time to linger we started our descent down the SE Ridge.

Final section of ice before the upper slope
Belay at the top of the North Face
Brief summit views before the clouds rolled in within minutes
The summit
Fortunately a pair of climbers had arrived just ahead of us, thereby making it a case of just following their footsteps in reverse. Soon we were leaving the ridge by a series of abseils until below the bergschrund. Then the cautious trudge amidst poor visibility across the snowfield between Tour Ronde and Aiguille de Toule taking care for hidden crevasses. Fortunately the cloud was thin at lower levels and so navigation back to the Torino hut was without dramas.

Descent into the murk

It rounded off what was actually quite a successful trip in light of the unsettled weather. We took most of the opportunities available to climb something.

Although it does mean another trip to try and climb Les Droites.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Rebuffat Gully (D+ / II, 4, 350m), La Tour Ronde

I simultaneously chopped at the snow with both axes like a preying mantis to bring it to my level. The soft snow was deep and needed partial clearance before I could advance my feet. Climbing the initial slope to the Rebuffat Gully of Tour Ronde was proving to be laborious task. The other parties below clearly seeing it better to wait and follow in line rather than burrow an alternate route.

The walls closed in and somehow I missed the belay bolts to my left, instead continuing up a short snowy step that lacked much substance to latch my axes onto, or to sink an ice screw.

Rebuffat Gully

Rebuffat Gully seemed a suitably modest objective to match the forecast, which had predicted light snow but it had looked to be our best opportunity amidst an otherwise unsettled week. As it happened the morning was proving to be a beautiful one with clear skies, little wind, and cloud still lurking in the valleys.

Descent from the Torino Hut
Aiguille Verte in a sea of cloud
Ready to climb!

The second pitch, which fell to Rob, was totally bare of ice. What it lacked in ice it made up with in powder, consequently making slow progress to clear and find hooks and gear placements. Made harder by our puny trad rack of 3 cams and a set of nuts. The climbing felt sustained Scottish tech 6, well constructed with often perfect hooks in the cracked left wall, and a good mixture of delicacy and beef. No doubt the ice would make the pitch easier but maybe less interesting.

The second pitch

The difficulties then eased up but there were another couple of icy streaks to keep things interesting for the next two pitches. And some impressive rock architecture overhead to admire. The ice was thin in places with granite exposed but what presented was sound and with and enough spots for adequate protection.

The fourth and final pitch before the abseils

Where the gully broadened and eased back we ab'ed off. The snow looked soft beyond and by this point the clouds had rolled in and shrouded everything. It didn't look much fun to continue the top and so we started the rappels. It made the route feel a little contrived with the abseils starting so low but the climbing to this point had at least been great.

With no visibility we followed the ski tracks back to the Torino Hut in a disorientated stated. Unexpectedly stumbling across a newly bashed section of piste in the final stretch to really throw us. Eventually we spotted a crane overhead, used to construct the new cable car to Courmayeur, and immediately we knew the hut was close at hand.

Abseiling into the gloom

Monday, 23 March 2015

Modica-Noury (TD+ / III 5+, 500m), Mont Blanc du Tacul

My Monday morning work alarm sounded beneath the East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul. I promptly switched it off and continued to gear up beneath Modica-Noury. Falling into a small crevasse a short time earlier whilst approaching from the Cosmiques refuge had probably been more of a wakeup call but with a tight rope between me and my partner Rob I had clambered out with relative ease. With so much drifted snow spotting all but the largest crevasses was impossible.

We had tried to climb Burnier-Vogler Gully the previous day but the expected 20km/h south-westerly winds had proved to be well in excess. We didn't even make it to the abseil point on the Cosmiques Ridge before signalling the retreat. Relentless spindrift over the North side didn't bode well and by this point much of it appeared to be plastering to my eyebrows as well. We beat a hasty retreat but only after butterfingers Rob let his belay jacket slip from his grasp whilst trying to don. Promptly it whipped over the North side of the ridge out of sight. Colour blue should anybody find it hanging in their back garden in Les Bossons. Later that evening we watched the spindrift pummel the NW slopes of the Tacul and in particular Chèré Couloir.

Rob leading the start of the Cosmiques Ridge the previous day

Fortunately Monday's weather was a complete contrast. Blue skies and no wind. The best day's weather that we would see during our trip. With so such snow having shifted to the Northerly aspects we were keen to avoid descending from the top of Tacul on foot and so chose Modica-Noury with its equipped abseil points.
The East face of Mont Blanc du Tacul
Gabarrou-Albinoni (l) and Modica-Noury (r) in fine condition

Having previously climbed Gabarrou-Albinoni (which shares the same start), and led the initial climbing up the wide couloir, I was more than happy to leave this donkey work to Rob second time around. We moved together in steady fashion to above where the couloir forked and the steep ice began.

Rob above the bergschrund

The first steep pitch proved exhilarating but the second pitch would only get better. Both a full 60m, gradually ramping up the higher we climbed, and always hemmed in by steep walls either side. Despite the steepness the climbing felt relatively easy due to the stepped nature of the ice from previous ascents. Not that this detracted. A solid base for the feet was never hard to find and consequently relieving the arms felt surprisingly easy for the steepness. Axe placements were also inevitably first time, needing minimal effort, and the same could be said for the screws. The hardest aspect was dealing with the cold. Towards the top of the crux pitch the fingers in one hand were numb, which made screw removal clumsy. The onset of hot aches of course followed. Rob made fine work of the steeper climbing, which largely fell to him. Then from below the final mixed section we began our rappels back to the glacier.

Rob leading the crux ice
Final section of steep ice

We passed only one other team during our descent but below the bergschrund lay swathes of skis. We had arrived first and would leave first but our slow trudge to the Midi station would be a walk of pain with so little acclimatisation. The last laugh certainly wasn't with us.

Gabarrou-Albinoni (l) and Modica-Noury (r) both looking fine
Abseiling the wide couloir
Ski city

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Hydalsfossen (WI4+), Hemsedal

The weather on Saturday morning was perfect. Cloudless blue skies, no winds and sub-freezing temperatures. Payback for the bad weather days.

With a trip to Chamonix commencing the following weekend this was certainly the last ice climb in Norway for this season and so it deserved a suitable finale to wrap-up what has personally been a great winter. Hydalsfossen had long been pencilled-in for March, when the moderately long approach would hopefully be easier. It looked a classic outing and similar in appearance to Hydnefossen, only milder in difficulty.

Magnus used cross-country skis for the approach, whereas I took snowshoes. Using nothing would have been perfectly adequate given the hardness of the snow. In such fine weather the approach was a joy. And again payback for all the trench digging though deep powder earlier in the season.

View towards Vavatn

We approached from the parking near Vavatn, over point 1256m to the top of the route, where the lake that forms Hydalsfossen was totally frozen. Time to leave the sun and descend beneath the North facing cliffs. Rather than abseil directly into the route it seemed perfectly feasible to just descend on foot a little further to the west. Such was the reliable firmness of the neve. At half height a tree persuaded us to make a quick rap to where the angle eased.

Close to the top of the waterfall

Abseiling into the route

First glimpse of Hydalsfossen really raised the excitement levels. It looked staggeringly impressive and in a wonderful remote setting hidden from the sun. Conditions looked excellent.


The snow beneath route needed caution. A thin than layer of windslab, anything up to 15cm, covered a hard layer of neve with little resistance between. Minimum risk though, given the firmness of the deeper layer, provided we skirted high beneath the cliffs where the slab had no weight.

Traversing to beneath the route

Much of the ice spanning the waterfall looked WI5 in difficulty, rising steeply without features, until the angle eased off near half height. A more undulating section of ice left of centre looked to be the obvious weakness and with a few more features to possibly mix the climbing up some more.

Magnus lead the first pitch, following a sustained slanting weakness up and left. Quickly he run into difficulties due to being unaccustomed with brittle ice, however lots of screws in close succession helped ease matters. 35m up he needed to make a belay. Then some minor stoppage to retrieve a dropped screw from some shallow windslab before my turn came.

Magnus leading the first pitch

Magnus at the first belay

The ice was certainly on the brittle side but no more so than that experienced in Oppdal and Alta this same winter. The slabby, consolidated nature of the ice meant a lack of natural features, and consequently some dinner plating. Generally better ice lay beneath though, so finding sound placements proved only a matter of patience. Not the horror show experienced on a couple of routes in Alta. At times my mono-points were also struggling to punch the ice cleanly but one benefit of dinner plating ice was that it at least left some positive foot holds behind. With attention to detail there were some strong first time axe placements to be found, particularly beneath the small, sporadic patches snow.

The sustained climbing continued on the second pitch up a series of short steep sections. Often the steeper sections would create more localised weaknesses for which to sink the axes. Then 30m into my pitch the angle eased back a little and the ice softened in equal measure to make for some very satisfying and efficient climbing. I could have finished the route with a little rope to spare, however it made sense to stop short of the top in order to leave plenty of rope to reach whatever belay point lay above the route.

Sadly Magnus had removed his GoPro helmet camera for the second pitch as his moaning during a period of intense hot aches midway up would have made for some compulsive viewing.

Me on the second pitch

We had expected the climb to need three pitches but in reality it was only around 100m rather than the 140m stated in the guidebook. Not that this detracted but in summary the fine weather, remote setting and spectacle of the route provided as many great memories as the actual climbing itself. Some of my best climbing has been in Hemsedal this winter so this was the perfect way to wrap-up the season. Also perfect final preparations for the Alps next week.